Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Forming Bad Hobbits!

Well that took long enough.

Last week I went to see The Hobbit - The Battle of The Five Armies. It was a long and visually rich film experience, but alas not one that succeeds as it ought. For the first time, I saw one of these new-fangled 3-D movies and frankly while it's a neat curiosity the texture of the movie seemed more like the flatness often translated on video tape; the luster of film was lost and along with it some of the essence of movie magic.

Anyone curious enough to read this review will be familiar with the story and likely the film series which began a few years ago with The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey which re-introduced us to the realms of Middle Earth as first designed by J.R.R. Tolkien so many decades ago. We meet a youthful Bilbo Baggins who is drawn into a wild and weird adventure by the wizard Gandalf as he joins a company of dwarves who want to reclaim their lost kingdom from the deadly dragon Smaug.

In the second film The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug we finally get to the Misty Mountain and Bilbo meets the charming but deadly Smaug and the dwarves, led by the quixotic royal heir Thorin Oakenshield fight hard to reclaim their kingdom deep inside the mountain, but in the end they unleash the dragon who flies to destroy the nearby human settlement of Lake Town.

Spoilers below, so tread with care. 

The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies begins with the struggle to bring down Smaug. I'm not ruining too much by saying this happens before the credits have properly finished rolling and that of course points glaringly to the greatest deficiency in this film series...it's just plain too long.

In a somewhat disdainful attempt to extract as much money from Tolkien fans as possible the decision was made rather late in the production to make the movie into three parts deviating from the original scheme to do only two movies. Given the source material, two seems ample and sadly if the original plan had been followed I don't doubt we'd have had two very tight films which resonated strongly in the imagination. Alas what we have now are three movies with a host of virtues but which tumble along with overlong and somewhat vapid action sequences which only serve to weary the viewer and and drain the characters of their verisimilitude. No dwarf and no human could survive the falls these characters take over the course of the three movies, and that's a pity in the sense we lose interest in their physical fates.

In my earlier reviews of the first two movies, I decried the tendency for the action sequences to have a video game feel and regrettably this third one has even more of that sense. One fatal flaw in this concoction is the utter failure in creating a villain with which the audience can have any connection. Azog is a cartoon from the get-go a creature right out of a superhero comic who feels out of place in Middle Earth and is rendered so heavily that we can hardly ever detect any real human behind the portrayal.

The core of this final film is the fate of Thorin Oakenshield, who has been set up as the Aragorn equivalent in this story. The fact his fate is far less rosy than that which falls to the former Strider is thoroughly expected, but the road there is less emotionally involving than I anticipated. The sequence where he throws off the maddening avarice which threatens his soul doesn't work at all for me and seems a bit too weird. Allowing the actor to showcase the changes on his face without the hindrance of fancy digital visions would've served the story much better.

And that seems to me to be the nut. For all the blather, most of it I'm sure exceedingly earnest, the director and his team do not trust the source material. In an effort to mostly recreate the highly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy nearly beat for beat they constantly overheat the story elements of The Hobbit to accommodate that understandable but ultimately self-defeating goal.

We are saddled with a forbidden romance between races which never reaches a boil, we are given a journey through the shadows of a dark goblin-infested realm which becomes a frenetic footrace against the enemy but almost never achieves any sense of true peril, we are given a finale which as promised in the title features five armies, but alas armies so vast and clearly digitized that they lack the ability to draw out our compassion.

The sub-plot involving Gol Guldur and the Necromancer and his minions searching for the rings makes perfect sense when the flick is seen as a precursor to the later LoTR, but within the immediate story needs of The Hobbit they become distractions, as spectacular as they are. 

Where the movies most often succeed is in those elements of the story which are demanded by the source material and cannot by and large be tampered with. The encounter by Bilbo with Gollum is tense and properly paced, and his later verbal joust with Smaug is the highlight of all three movies.

Sadly the Hobbit himself gets lost in this last movie, despite several attempts to glue him into the proceedings. But in that respect at least it remains true to the novel in which as I recall Bilbo likewise disappears from the narrative as the battles rage, though for a far shorter time.

So ultimately The Hobbit trilogy stands as a remarkable fantasy adventure, with some really fabulous sequences which properly invigorate the creation of Tolkien, but which sadly trade on those creations to do more than they are capable of and remain valid to the spirit of Tolkien.

I find I like these movies better on DVD than in the theater where the visual spectacle bewilders as I try to maintain focus on the story. Perhaps my inevitable encounter with the movie again in a few months will make me warm to it more. That has happened to some extent with its predecessors. 

It's a shame the movies weren't better, but they are fine and entertaining nonetheless. Maybe in a few years Jackson will re-cut the movies and make them into a super-tight two parter which will allow the story to shine even brighter.

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  1. I saw an interview with Jackson, Rip, when he was promoting the movie, in which he said he's now working on the DVD cut - which will have extra scenes. I saw all three Lord of the Rings movies in the cinema, but haven't seen any of The Hobbit ones. I'll wait until they're released as a boxed set (in a sale) and see what I think of them.

    1. I'm a sucker for these, so I have already gotten the two box cuts for the first two movies. And true to his word in the second one there is a whole new subplot which is alluded to in the theatrical versions but is developed. It's in Gol Guldur and deals with the fate of Thorin's dad. It's more of the LOtR backstory which is interesting but not essential to the main Hobbit narrative.

      There's an element of getting the band back together when they made these movies which I can appreciate, but knowing that relative success was assured (as opposed to the last time) they indulged themselves. Jackson has suffered that since the release of the three LOtR movies, which explains why King Kong was so bloated.

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